When Martin Marshall started looking for his dad a three years ago, he had a fantasy: One day, he might sit down over a cup of coffee with a half-sibling he’d never even met and hear a few stories about the father he’d never known.
It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.
Marshall has learned some fascinating things about his heritage. But he has also infuriated and antagonized complete strangers who can’t believe that he would suggest that a loved one might have sired illegitimate children — and then ask for their DNA to help prove it. He has been accused of harassment and even extortion. And he still doesn’t know who his father was.
“It’s more of a twisted tale and journey than I envisioned,” Marshall acknowledges.
It is a journey that has become more common, as the curious and the lonely have seized upon DNA testing as a way to find their families. Some have been successful. But others, like Marshall, have found it a difficult and sometimes bitter experience.
Nobody ever told Marshall how to approach people to ask for their DNA. Nobody ever explained how to tell a complete stranger that maybe, just possibly, the man who raised him — the man who played catch with him in the yard, who taught him to drive, who sent him off to war and welcomed him home — may have cheated on his mother.
“What are the procedures,” Marshall asks. “Where’s the handbook for how you go about doing this kind of research?”
How it all began
This is what Martin Marshall’s mother told him:
His father was a GI, stationed in St. Louis during World War II. But when the Army transferred him to Texas in 1944, Al Marshall left St. Louis — and his family — behind.
Marshall was born four years after that. His mother always swore he was conceived when her estranged husband made his one and only trip back to St. Louis, but Marshall found that hard to believe. He always knew in his gut that Al Marshall wasn’t his father.
Marshall grew up in California, where his mother moved with her three sons in 1952. His brothers were rough-and-tumble young men who never finished high school, but Marshall was a bookish boy. He won a scholarship to the California Institute of Technology, where the other members of his class named him their poet laureate.
He pursued careers as a tech journalist and entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. Eventually he started his own Internet consulting firm, the Martin Marshall Group.
He raised a family. He wrote poems and essays. He didn’t give much thought to his paternity.
But a few years ago Marshall started wondering what his mother, who died in 1987, had covered up about her past — and his. He was on the verge of becoming a grandfather, and wanted to have answers when his grandchildren asked the same questions his mother had always evaded.
The first thing Marshall did was confirm what he already suspected. He had his DNA tested, then set out to compare it to his brothers’.
Marshall’s brothers were both dead, but the older one had a surviving son who agreed to submit a DNA sample. Marshall and his nephew scraped a few cells off the insides of their cheeks and sent them to Relative Genetics, a DNA testing lab in Salt Lake City.
A few weeks later, the results came back. They didn’t match.
Just to be sure, Marshall did some research and discovered that Al Marshall had yet another son by a second marriage. That son also agreed to be tested.
Again, no match.
Marshall could have stopped there. But he understood that there was more information to be wrung out of his DNA — much more.
Finding a name
Marshall had tested his Y-chromosome DNA, the only genetic material that fathers pass directly to their sons. That meant his DNA profile might offer a clue to another paternally inherited trait — his real father’s surname.
Marshall logged into an Internet database. He entered his DNA profile, and was astounded to find that virtually every person who closely resembled him genetically was named Sizemore.
Marshall dug into the history of the Sizemore family. He learned that like many men named Sizemore his DNA profile wasn’t European, but typical of American Indians. Based on this evidence, genealogists hypothesize that perhaps one-third of Sizemores trace their ancestry back to a female colonist and a male Indian who lived in Virginia during the 17th century.
That was a fascinating piece of information, but it certainly didn’t tell Marshall who his father was. Now it was a matter of shuttling back and forth between past and present — identifying men named Sizemore who Marshall’s mother might have had contact with during the spring of 1948, when he was conceived, and then locating those men or their descendants today.
Marshall called the St. Louis County Library, where genealogists dug up old city and county directories that helped him find 13 Sizemore men of eligible age who probably lived in the area during the spring of 1948.
Then it was back to the present. Marshall looked in newspaper databases for obituaries of the men he’d identified. He tracked down their survivors using Internet telephone directories.
Eventually he lined up enough descendants of the original 13 candidates to determine if one of them was likely to have been his father.
But when the samples came back, it was the same as before. Some of the men matched one another. But none of them matched Marshall.
Other clues remembered
Again, Marshall could have stopped. Maybe he should have. But something still bothered him, something in the back of his mind. He had memories of things his mother had told him about her past. He remembered an old photograph of a man with a young boy on his knee. Marshall’s mother told him the man’s name was Gene, and that once they had been in love.
Maybe this Gene was Marshall’s father. Marshall recalled an incident from when he was a young boy. He and his mother had been at a church supper or some similar event. His mother stayed behind to help clean up, and a nice man named Gene drove Marshall home. When they arrived, Gene asked the young boy if he might like to come live with his family.
As a 4-year-old boy, Marshall had no idea what to make of such a question. But now ...
“This was a man who knew that I was his son,” Marshall says.
Could it be? If so, the man’s full name would have had to be Gene Sizemore. How many Gene Sizemores could there be in the United States?
Somewhere in the neighborhood of 60, it turns out, and none in Missouri. By consulting an Internet site that offers inexpensive background checks, however, Marshall discovered one Gene Sizemore who had previously lived in the state.
Not only that, this Gene Sizemore had once lived in the town of Louisiana, Mo. Hadn’t his mother told him back in 1981 that his father came from a town called Louisiana? Marshall had always assumed that she had been talking about Al Marshall.
But maybe she really meant this man. His real father. Gene.
Making the call
The phone number was in Arizona. Maybe Marshall's father had retired there.
But when Marshall finally reached Eugene D. Sizemore of Phoenix, he found himself speaking to a man his own age. He soon discovered that the man on the phone was Gene Jr., a Vietnam veteran who had moved to Arizona after running a furniture and carpet store in Louisiana, Mo.
Gene Sr. — the man Marshall suspected was his own father — had passed away in 2000.
But Gene Jr. explained that Gene Sr. could not possibly be Marshall’s father. The elder Sizemore had been hospitalized with polio during the spring of 1948.
His mother was working as a nurse’s aide then, Marshall countered. Maybe they met in the hospital.
But Gene Jr. was adamant. His father just wasn’t that type of man. He had lived in the town of Louisiana his entire life. He was married to Gene Jr.’s mother for more than 67 years. He was a prominent local businessman and a Mason.
Finally, Marshall asked if Gene Jr. would be willing to submit a DNA sample.
The answer: Absolutely not.
Marshall hadn’t come this far just to give up. He followed up with several months of letters and more phone calls. He tried to explain why he believed Gene Sr. might be his father.
Gene Jr. felt like he was being stalked. He says Marshall’s calls and letters “border on harassment,” and has steadfastly refused to be tested.
Gene Jr. feels no joy in the possibility that he might have a new relation, only anger and disgust that a man he loved and respected has been besmirched by someone who never knew him.
“There is no reason to submit my DNA for analysis,” he wrote in a January e-mail message. “My father is not Mr. Marshall’s father.”
Once again, Marshall could have given up. But there were too many tantalizing clues, too many coincidences. Gene Sr. had owned a men’s clothing store; Marshall recalled his mother telling him once that his father had been in the clothing business.
Marshall decided to do an end run. He would find a more distant relative of Gene Sr., a cousin who had no personal relationship with the man. Surely there was one person out there who shared a common male ancestor with Gene Sr. and was willing to help Marshall out.
There were two, actually. Both were descendants of John Sizemore Sr., the great-grandfather of Gene Sr. and great-great-grandfather of Gene Jr. If Marshall’s DNA profile was close to theirs, it would be powerful evidence that Gene Sr. was his father.
Marshall had the men send their cheek swabs off in February. When the results came back a few weeks later, the two men matched one another almost perfectly.
But neither matched Marshall.
It may appear that this is a dead end. Even if Gene Jr. were to submit his DNA — which he still refuses to do — it now seems much less likely that it would match Marshall’s.
But Marshall has come too far, invested too much effort to give up.
“The combination of personal experience and DNA still leaves me at the doorstep of Gene Sizemore Sr. until proven otherwise,” he says.
So there he sits, the unwelcome guest of a man who will not call him brother.